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A new report claims the social networking service is tracking people without their permission. It doesn’t matter if you don’t even use Facebook: they’re still watching you. Here’s what that means to you, and what you can do about it.

Of course, Facebook’s privacy settings have been a worry since the site was set up in 2004, and frequent changes to your settings means there’s often a fresh new concern. But we do throw ourselves online with such enthusiasm! Photos, private messages, locations – many of us document our lives using Facebook and Twitter. You can even turn your tweets into a book Convert Your Twitter Tweets Into A Published Book With Twournal Convert Your Twitter Tweets Into A Published Book With Twournal A few years ago, I stumbled upon Twournal which can put your latest 3,200 tweets into a PDF or paperback book. When you see your Twitter content archived in one document, you gain a better... Read More .

And when Facebook acquired WhatsApp, even the privacy of that SMS service Everything You Need To Know About Your WhatsApp Privacy Settings Everything You Need To Know About Your WhatsApp Privacy Settings Read More got a few sweating.

And to add further fuel to controversies, the Belgium Privacy Protection Commission (CPVP/CBPL) says Facebook “tramples” on European privacy laws…

What Are They Doing?

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Following a report by their inter-university centre, EMSOC/SPION, in conjunction with their counterparts in France, Spain, the Netherlands, and Germany, the commission states:

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“The research results are disconcerting. Facebook disregards European and Belgian privacy legislation in several ways… [Tracking people through social plug-ins] does not only impact Facebook users but also virtually every Internet user in Belgium and Europe.”

The social networking giant has seemingly ignored EU law by tracking traffic on Facebook.com domains – fan pages, most notably, but also profiles with looser privacy settings – that don’t require an account. Perhaps more worryingly, the social plug-in used to “Like” pages across more than 13 million websites reads tracking cookies and sends that data onto Facebook.

So it actually doesn’t matter if you’ve got a Facebook account or not: they can still track you.

And if you do have a Facebook account, session cookies allow the service to track sites you visit even after logging out.

EU privacy law asserts that consent has to be given before using tracking cookies (though exemptions apply if cookies are necessary to connect to a service or if they’re needed to deliver something the user has requested). It’s basically the reason websites have to let first-time visitors from the EU know that they employ cookies.

How Are They Getting Away With It?

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A spokesman from Facebook said:

“As we expressed to the CBPL in person when we met, there is nothing more important to us than the privacy of our users and we work hard to make sure people have control over what they share and with whom. Facebook is already regulated in Europe and complies with European data protection law, so the applicability of the CBPL’s efforts are unclear. But we will of course review the recommendations when we receive them with our European regulator, the Irish Data Protection Commissioner.”

And that’s the crux of Facebook’s argument: that they’re only subject to Irish law, as their European headquarters (a lavish, typically-cool building designed by Frank Gehry, complete with ping-pong table, inspirational posters, and giant illustrations of astronauts) is in Dublin.

The idea of shadow profiles – information about people who don’t use the service – isn’t anything new, of course. Max Schrems, Austrian activist and founder of Europe v Facebook, previously spoke out about Facebook flouting European law, and said in 2011:

“Now we are rather positive that the Irish authorities will make Facebook change a whole lot. If you read the interviews with the authority it seems like they are taking the cause very seriously.”

The Privacy Protection Commission doesn’t have the power to impose fines, but can begin lawsuit procedures.

Article 29 is Also Kicking up a Fuss

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The Belgium Privacy Protection Commission isn’t the only agency concerned about tracking cookies. The Article 29 Working Party, an independent data regulator, says social plug-ins should also ask permission from the user before sending out cookies, and that session cookies should expire when logged out of Facebook.

You can opt out of tracking used for advertisements by the social network, but Brendan Van Alsenoy, who contributes to the European Law Blog, told The Guardian:

“Facebook cannot rely on users’ inaction (ie not opting out through a third-party website) to infer consent. As far as non-users are concerned, Facebook really has no legal basis whatsoever to justify its current tracking practices.”

Last month, Facebook admitted to tracking non-users, but said it was due to a bug that is being fixed.

What Can You Do About It?

Facebook Ad Tracking

As Facebook says, you can opt-out of personalised ads How To Avoid Appearing In Social Ads In Facebook & LinkedIn How To Avoid Appearing In Social Ads In Facebook & LinkedIn A social advertisement works in a very straightforward way: if you, by a coincidence or whatever reason, have liked a Facebook page or ad, your friends will see your "like" next time they see the... Read More which can publicise your likes, or you could even use non-tracking browser extensions The Top 8+ Security & Privacy Extensions For The Chrome Browser The Top 8+ Security & Privacy Extensions For The Chrome Browser Google’s Chrome Web Store hosts many extensions that can protect your security and privacy while using Chrome. Whether you want to block JavaScript, plug-ins, cookies and tracking scripts or force websites to encrypt your traffic,... Read More like Disconnect (though these can sometimes be a pain when leaving comments, for example). Otherwise, some extensions like Edit This Cookie for Chrome let you customise which cookies you allow.

And don’t forget to tamper with your app permissions too Concerned About Privacy? Opt Out Of Facebook App Permissions With fPrivacy [Chrome] Concerned About Privacy? Opt Out Of Facebook App Permissions With fPrivacy [Chrome] I hate it when apps ask for permission to access my friends list, access my birthdate, and worse of all, post on Facebook as me. If you feel the same way Facebook apps and permissions,... Read More .

It’s very easy to get frustrated with the social network Frustrated with Facebook? 5 Tips to Reclaim Your Sanity Frustrated with Facebook? 5 Tips to Reclaim Your Sanity The real-world social implications of Facebook make it difficult to deal with frustrating online situations. Here are five tips to help you keep your Facebook feed drama-free. Read More , and the European Commission (EU) has a recommendation if you are concerned about your privacy. In a hearing (instigated by Max Schrems) concerning the Safe Harbour framework, which allows the transmission of personal data from Europe to the USA, EU Legal Advisor, Bernhard Schima, said:

“You might consider closing your Facebook account, if you have one.”

If you think this might be a step too far, you could try a trial deactivation. But if you’re too sceptical about what Facebook does with your data This Is What Facebook Does with Your Data & How To Opt Out [Weekly Facebook Tips] This Is What Facebook Does with Your Data & How To Opt Out [Weekly Facebook Tips] Facebook is a publicly traded company. As such, its success isn't just measured in traffic or users, but first and foremost in revenue. In other words, Facebook is pressured to make more money. But where... Read More , you can indeed properly close your account How To Properly Close Your Facebook Account How To Properly Close Your Facebook Account Read More .

Have you ever considered leaving Facebook? Why? Or have you already left the network – and, in retrospect, do you think this was a good move? Let us know below.

Image Credits: Spy vs Spy by Tony Fischer; Cookie Monster by Surian Soosay; and Self Snitch by Poster Boy.

  1. Ajax
    September 3, 2016 at 4:55 pm

    After starting a Facebook in 2008 and closing it in 2015 I have learned more about the amount of data I gave away and that is now spread around the internet.

    Today people need to realize that their data is currency and by giving it away they are giving away a type of capital.
    Imagine having a unknown person who watches over your shoulder all day, every day and that is what; Facebook, Twitter, and Google, Microsoft, Apple, I.E. any company that wants free user data. And I'm intentionally taking about only commercial companies.
    But in today's society that is what a majority of people want because this is the look at me era, and everyone is looking for their 15 mins of fame/shame.
    I some times get nostalgic about the era where people were mad libraries were tracking books being checked out. Now it's abnormal to think about the government not reading and listening and watching everything you and everyone else does along with every big corporation on earth.

  2. George Klein
    May 23, 2015 at 6:20 am

    Shortly after signing up with Facebook about three or four years ago I opted out of it because of privacy issues. This article just reinforces what I did was the right thing to do.
    I don't use any social network site, Twitter, Linkedin etc, etc, only flickr for the sole reason of showing some of my photographs. I do that with a grin of salt, since I know some people may steal my photographs and use them without asking for permission. To make that a bit more difficult I watermarked all of them.
    Anybody who wants to contact me on the internet there is the "old fashioned" email.

  3. Occasional Wanker
    May 22, 2015 at 9:19 pm

    Never had a FB account to consider closing, I am proud to say.

    • Philip Bates
      May 29, 2015 at 10:10 am

      Fair enough! The worrying thing is that even if you don't have Facebook, and never have, there's still a shadow profile of you. It likely won't have your name, but it'll have certain demographic information.

  4. pac
    May 22, 2015 at 11:27 am

    Even smiling :) no joke: that's one of the reasons I consider FB a crime against humanity.

  5. we the free people
    May 22, 2015 at 7:28 am

    Thank you NSA. Feel so safe

  6. we the free people
    May 22, 2015 at 7:28 am

    Thank you NSA. Feel so safe

  7. Oldgit9
    May 21, 2015 at 5:09 pm

    I have already left Facebook because of their weak privacy policy & underhand tracking.

    What I'm getting more agrivated with, when you disable the use of cookies in a browsers etc, the web page stops you from navigating to any other page, unless you agree to the T&C's. Unless you carefully read the T&C's, there is a high chance, your agreeing to pass on your details etc. so in the long & short of things, they are stopping you from accessing web pages, unless you give your data away

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